Living in China, it is important to know what you can and can’t do. We have already taken a look at eight lucky symbols and four of China’s lucky animals. Here, we take a look at some of the superstitions in China that are related to bad luck. China is very diverse, so of course it’s impossible to say that everyone in China believes in these superstitions; many originate from some specific Chinese ethnic groups and cultures, but over time, they have been adopted by some people and are or at least well known and respected to most.
Even the freshest of expats already know about the unlucky number four, which, in Chinese, sounds the same as death, and the idea that having a mirror outside your door can reflect bad luck also spread like wildfire this year, after it lead to a deadly incident in a Henan village. But there are so many other unknown superstitions out there. Hopefully understanding these will limit the inevitable awkward faux pas and moments of miscommunication that are part and parcel of life in China.
Due to the importance of food in Chinese culture, there are a lot of food related behaviours that are believed to cause bad luck. Most commonly talked about is the way that leaving chopsticks upright in your rice bowl is bad luck, as it resembles an offering at somebody’s grave or for ancestors. However, turning over a cooked fish on its plate is also a very bad omen in China. It is considered more appropriate to just use your chopsticks to pull the fish from underneath, rather than turning it around to eat the other side. This bad luck originates in the fishing villages in Southern China, where the fishermen would not overturn their fish on their plates, as they feared that the next time they went out to sea, their boats would capsize in the same way.
There is also bad luck in the way one cuts up and divides pears. For example, if you cut a pear in half for your partner, this will probably end in a divorce or a separation. This is because the way that you say ‘cutting a pear in half’, fenli, sounds the same as ‘to depart’, meaning that your partner may leave you. If you are not sure about this, it is better to eat the pear yourself, or to stick to apples.
New Year’s Day
Sweeping or dusting on New Year’s Day is a big no-no. If you are dusting or sweeping it signifies sweeping away good luck, especially if you sweep your dust out of the house through the front entrance. This means that you have just swept away your entire family’s good fortune. If you do end up dusting, the dust and dirt has to be swept towards the inside of the house, collected there, and taken out the back door – these superstitions clearly were not made for modern-day Chinese apartment flats where there are no back doors.
Buying books is also bad luck on New Year’s Day, as the Cantonese word for books sounds like the word for loss, meaning that you will lose something if you buy books on New Year’s Day. Most bookstores in the south of China actually shut on this day, to help people avoid this bad luck. The same goes for shoes, as shoes are homophone to “evil” in Mandarin and “rough” in Cantonese.
Ghost stories are also not acceptable during this time, as telling ghost stories acknowledges their existence, and invites them into your home. It would also be safe to avoid haunted sites during this time.
Pregnant Women & Newborn Babies
There are also a lot of superstitions with regards to pregnancy and newborn babies. Besides for these need-to-know facts, being pregnant in China comes with many superstitions. For example, a pregnant woman must never use glue, as it means that she is going to have a very difficult birth. There are also beliefs that renovating the house prior to the baby being born (for example, setting up or building a nursery) is dangerous, as drilling and construction work is dangerous for the baby.
Ghosts are very prevalent in young Chinese childrens’ lives, as newborns are never to be praised, for the fear that it might invite evil spirits and ghosts into their lives. Likewise, a Chinese woman shouldn’t go to a funeral when she is pregnant, as there will be spirits present here and they could potentially be harmful for the baby. The same spirits are to blame for when babies cry inexplicably: it is because they are so innocent that they are able to see the bad spirits, and the bad spirits are disturbing them. Dogs and cats also have this ability to see spirits and ghosts around them, unlike most adults. This is why it is deemed important to bring a baby, very young child or a dog to a house viewing, as they will be the only ones who are able to check the house for ghosts or bad spirits.
Pregnant Chinese women are also not supposed to rub their belly, as this is seen as bad luck for the baby, as the woman is spoiling it with too much attention. The children whose mothers rub their bellies during pregnancy will come out spoiled and demanding, according to some. However, there are varying explanations for why some children grow up spoiled: the little emperor phenomenon, for a start.
As is quite clear in daily life, most Chinese people do not believe all of these things, but maybe one day when your mother-in-law snatches that pear you were about to enjoy out of your hands and yells at you, you’ll be happy you had some forewarning on some of China’s bad luck beliefs. Also, knowing these superstitions can provide some excellent dinner conversation to distract from how poor you are at eating the huge fish on the table that you can’t overturn, even though you are living hundreds of miles from the ocean.
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Keywords: bad omen in China bad luck in China
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15 Comments Add your comment
And yet, so few people wear seat belts, or see the link between smoking and cancer (I guess because that's all based on Western science, and Chinese bodies are different). Maybe if you start saying that "It's good luck to wear a helmet while on an ebike" or "It's bad luck to let your kid use the streets and floors as a bathroom, especially around food (because that can spread fecal bacteria.. er I mean, evil spirits)", then you can effectively cut down on traffic fatalities, and dysentery, respectively.
Oct 08, 2014 09:51 Report Abuse
You don't get it do you? Wearing a helmet or seatbelts means you are a poor rider/driver, people who are awesome at riding/driving (according to themselves) don't need any of that safety crap, because they will never crash! And cancer? Are you crazy? Smoking doesn't cause cancer! Talking about getting cancer causes cancer! So blaze up that tar and nicotine, and shut up!
Oct 08, 2014 11:13 Report Abuse
I recently married a swell Chinese gal and was told that my pregnant coworker would not be allowed to attend our wedding because being with child at a wedding is also bad luck. I'm not sure I got the entire meaning behind the reason but I was told that it would be TOO much happiness/luck in one place and that it would affect my wife's chances for future conception as the happiness of the baby and the happiness of the wedding would collide...I then heard from another friend that a similar situation happened in her family. At the wedding of a cousin, there was a pregnant woman who had not yet announced she was carrying. After the wedding, the new couple was having difficulties conceiving and by that time the pregnant guest was outed as being pregnant at their wedding. This family blamed the pregnant woman entirely for the problems facing the new couple！
Nov 16, 2014 16:08 Report Abuse
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